Last month, heavy rain opened a pothole near our office. We reported it to the local authority, using the ‘FixMyStreet’ app from MySociety. Two weeks later, the authority’s maintenance department sent an email saying “Thank you for your complaint. Unfortunately this road is the responsibility of another authority.” They did not forward the complaint to them or provide a contact.
Now suppose you’re in Uganda, where a Chinese contractor was recently suspended for procurement fraud. Who do you report the pothole to? The contractor who built the road? The African Development Bank, who paid for it? The Uganda National Roads Authority, who are responsible for maintenance? The local Member of Parliament, who approved their budget? Or the administration of the county or district the road passes through?
Holding governments to account for their actions is never easy. It’s even harder in countries like Uganda, where much of the road budget comes from donors, not the government. To start the conversation, you need to know who built the road, who paid for it, and who is responsible for maintenance once it is completed. The Ugandan government publishes its budget online in detail, but the data from donors is harder to find as it does not flow through the government budget. That is the problem that Publish What You Fund is trying to address.
What information do partner countries want?
Since we started our campaign in 2008, most donors have become more transparent about their activities. If you know where to look, there is some good data out there. But most people we speak to don’t know where to look, and can’t make much sense of what they find. That realisation led us to ask: what sort of information do people in partner countries want on aid and development finance? Do the existing data sources meet their needs? If not, why not?
Our research manager, Elise Dufief, travelled to Benin and Tanzania to try to find out. We have just published a discussion paper on her findings. People interviewed in both countries expressed a clear and repeated need for better information on how aid and development money is being spent and what it achieves. However, it appears that existing initiatives are not always meeting that need. This challenge is compounded by the fragmenting aid and development landscape, as well as a lack of trust in the data.
In some cases, the lack of trust reflects wider relations between the international community, the state and civil society, as expressed in conflicting reports on the Government of Tanzania’s apparent decision to pull out of the Open Government Partnership. That is not likely to be something that donors alone have the power to fix. However, we argue in the discussion paper that donors also need to realise the responsibilities that come with publishing data: to provide opportunities for people to talk to them about their information needs and to provide feedback on – and improve the overall quality of – the data.
With publication comes responsibility
Realising that publication comes with responsibility means going beyond the “publish and let others use it” mantra of transparency and open data activists a few years back. It is consistent, however, with the new strategy of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), whose members are currently meeting in Rome.
It is also consistent with the approach taken by more recent initiatives like 360Giving, the Open Contracting Partnership and International Open Data Charter. They have developed their use cases in parallel to their data standards, so that the standard does not constrain the use case unduly.
This is leading Publish What You Fund to place more emphasis on donors to find out what stakeholders in partner countries want and to make sure this information is published in as much detail as possible. We want to use the next Aid Transparency Index to shed light on how donors are realising or shirking these responsibilities and how they might all improve so that transparency leads to genuine accountability
Finally, we will continue to promote the IATI Standard and are working with the initiative so that it is better equipped to realise its vision that “transparent, good quality information on development resources and results is available and used by all stakeholder groups to help achieve sustainable development outcomes.”